The clock in Dublin Castle chimed eight bars. He took a deep gulp of air into his lungs. It came out again as a frightened gasp, a sound too pitiful and small for a man of his stature. The English skullcap felt alien on his Celtic head and their foreign sword felt clumsy in his hand. For any other foe he would have practiced. He would be warming up now. But he couldn’t. His mind was bleak and blank, and his limbs had turned to lead. They had made such a terrible mistake.
“Why, Conor, why?”
He didn’t blame his little cousin, not really. If their row – it all seemed so stupid now – had been settled in the traditional way, there would have been another bloody feud. Too many O’Connor lives had been spent to bring about the truce that had united their family and if they had violated that truce, who knows how many of their brothers and cousins would have died?
The country was changing. The clans had always followed their own Brehon law and the comings and goings of soldiers from across the sea had made little impression on the O’Connors. But the might of the English queen was being felt more and more across the land and some said that soon all people would be her people.
Conor liked to gamble. He gambled and lost. He gambled this time that taking his complaint to the queen’s Lord Justice and not the Brehon judges would be a good move. As always when he gambled, he lost.
The clock in Dublin Castle chimed nine bars. In separate rooms in Dublin Castle, two cousins stripped to the waist. Two cousins checked their skullcaps. Cousin picked up a sword to attack cousin in the name of the new queen’s justice and a shield to be his only defence.
Conor had listened to the Lord Justice when he said to press charges. Teigh had then travelled to Dublin on the orders of the Lord Justice with the taunts of his own people at his back. “Traitorous fools, both of ye! Our law is Brehon law – we bow to no foreign queen.” He had been persuaded by the Lord Justice to accuse Conor of treason and the two of them had been sentenced to prove the innocence of one and the guilt of another by mortal combat.
The cold of Dublin morning wrapped the boys in a chill as they stepped into the courtyard. The English lords and ladies sat on the dais. The yard was decked as though for a great feast, a celebration, rather than the spectacle of two men forced to fight to the death.
Their eyes met. The trumpet sounded. They each held the other’s gaze, but neither moved. There came a shout from the dais. Still, neither broke the other’s gaze, and neither moved.
“Do you savages mock the queen’s justice? You are being tried by mortal combat. You must fight to prove yourself innocent or we will hang the both of you by the necks until dead.”
They moved, but slowly. Fear drove them forward but love held them back, and love is stronger than fear. He boys circled each other, both good fighters and both wishing there was any way other than to fight, as on the dais the rulers commented idly on the “poor sport” that these two were providing. Teigh held back all the time, desperately wishing for another way. He didn’t want to die but neither could he kill. Conor slashed and an agonising burn across spread across Teigh’s bare chest. A fighter’s sudden fury destroys all in its path, even love. A second’s madness, a single blow took Conor’s head from his diminutive body.
He was shaking. He couldn’t let them see him shake. His stomach roiled and bile rose to the back of his mouth. He tried not to look as he presented Conor’s head to the fine lords and ladies. He left the yard to the sound of their polite applause and, when he was sure he was out of sight, bent double and retched into the gutter with their clapping in his ears. The memory of that sound, and of Conor’s grey eyes as they met his own in the courtyard as the Dublin Castle clock struck nine would haunt his dreams forever, and he would wonder what kind of queen this was who ruled from across the sea, and how this was her “justice.”